Ancient Africa practised slavery long before the coming of the Europeans. The practice was not called ‘slavery’ but many people at the time owned people for several reasons. These slaves had to work for a period or until they were old enough to be set free.
Slaves in ancient African societies were the lowest on the social class ladder but had the opportunity to climb up the social ladder and live normal lives. They were allowed to marry from well-to-do families, trade or own property of their own. Slaves also lived very close to their masters or lived with their family and went over to their master’s house to work depending on the agreed arrangement.
The transatlantic slave trade introduced what is known as Chattel Slavery, where slave became full property of the owner who then chooses to treat the slave anyhow they want to. In Chattel Slavery, slaves were not respected as humans but rather as a beneficial property that could be sold for income. It was also mainly based on race, and many accounts show that they were treated worse than even animals.
Here are five kinds of slavery that existed in ancient Africa.
1. Captives and slaves of war
This was possibly the most famous form of slavery in ancient Africa especially during the reign of powerful kingdoms such as Dahomey, Ghana, Benin and the Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom. Armies often raided smaller settlements to expand their kingdoms. In the process, the old were killed and the young captured as slaves. The captives were shared among royalty and the military, some were then given to families who in one way or the other pleased the king, and the rest were sold to wealthy traders. These captives served their new owners who in turn gave them good living conditions. Slaves had every right to complain to the royal house and owners were sanctioned if found guilty. Many of such slaves were free to go after a while and others become part of their new families.
2. Slaves as punishment for a crime
When a member of society was found guilty of a crime, he or she was made to serve a designated family for a stated period. Prison systems did not exist in ancient Africa, so this form of slavery was also prevalent. The number of months or years that a criminal was made to serve depended on the crime committed. Families of criminals were sometimes given the option to buy back the freedom of their family member, and in the case where they were not able to pay, the criminal was kept as a slave. On rare occasions, criminals were asked to pay a fine, serve as a slave before being exiled. Criminals serving as slaves could gain back their freedom on good behaviour or at the death of their master
3. Domestic slavery
For many families who could not make ends meet, domestic slavery was a means of survival. These slaves were often bought but did not solely belong to their owners. As part of the agreement, domestic slaves were given a piece of land, a place to stay and food to eat. If they worked for wealthy merchants, they were given a small percentage of profit, but this money was only available after the agreed time of servitude had elapsed. The system was prevalent and ensured good behaviour as almost everyone in the kingdom was kept busy and making a living.
4. Military slaves
In many kingdoms, the army was made up of well-selected young men and women who possessed the potential of strength. When troops went on military conquests, they often brought back with them a selected group of youth. With approval from the King and military leader, these young men and women were put in the care of an army patron and trained as a separate military unit that served the kingdom. With time, many of the slave military men and women could rise in the ranks and marry royalty or join the prestigious military. Their duty was mainly to serve the first military and run errands for royalty. They were also made to protect the kingdom by living close to the barriers to ward off anything that was a threat. Those that served well were rewarded with freedom, land and property such as gold.
This was a somewhat rare form of slavery but very popular in West Africa. People were offered as pawns to secure an agreement, make payment or erase a debt that could not be paid. People kept as pawns were restricted and often kept under protection until the other party completed their end of the bargain. Pawns were set free after a while or after the death of someone involved in the agreement. In very rare cases, pawns were stuck with their new owners for life but were treated well. They were often children who would grow to become a part of the family. At their own will, a pawn could leave for his or her original home once he or she was an adult.